Culture change, building teams and continuous learning

Here at Peridot we’ve built a collaborative, honest and transformative partnership with The Children’s Trust. Over the last two years we’ve supported their Chief Executive and Board to recruit five specialist board members and the Director of Finance, Director of Income Generation and Communications, and Director of Clinical Services (Chief Nurse).

The Children’s Trust has been on a journey. As the UK’s leading charity for children with brain injury and neurodisability, their rehabilitation, education and community services support thousands of children and their families every year.

And every year the need for their support increases.

Dalton Leong has been the Chief Executive at the charity since 2013 and in that time has overseen a huge period of change. He’s had to balance sustaining and growing income with transformational culture change and service innovation.

As part of our leadership series, we talked to him about how he’s created that change, what he’s like as a leader and what it feels like to be the Chief Executive.

We start with the last staff survey; out of 533 eligible staff, 495 completed it – an incredible 93%. This was a very different story to just four years ago, when only 42.5% of staff engaged with the survey.

So what changed?

Creating trust

Dalton has worked hard to build confidence. Confidence with his Board of Trustees, with colleagues and with the children and families they support. Practically, he’s done that through transparent conversations. He’s built trust through action.

Seeing regulatory ratings improve to ‘Outstanding’, building a brilliant senior leadership team, creating sustainable income and growth and, importantly, role modelling kindness and consideration across the organisation.

But what brings this all together is the focus on the children and families they support. Children and young people are at the centre of all decision making at The Children’s Trust. Their needs are embedded through the culture of the charity.

We’ve seen that firsthand here at Peridot. When we have recruited for The Children’s Trust, the young people’s (interview) panel is very much a part of the assessment process. Their feedback is a key part of recruiting values-led Trustees and senior leaders.

Dalton talks about taking a genuine interest in people. He talks about little things being important, helping to show people his interest – like taking the time to greet all staff and volunteers at their national specialist centre and school (set in 25 acres) in Tadworth, Surrey.

“You treat others as you expect to be treated. So it doesn’t matter who they are, what they do. They will get a warm greeting from me.”

This is reflected in the staff survey, when 96% of staff said they were proud to work at the organisation.

“This is about engagement, caring about what our staff feel and say; then you can do something about it.”

Breaking down cross organisational silos

Every organisation talks about how they communicate across teams. The Children’s Trust is no exception. Dalton describes how they’re moving to working in a more integrated way. His aim is to wipe the word ‘silo’ from the terminology of the charity.

“It’s initially down to us as a senior leadership team to lead by example, and then everyone else, to choose to work in an integrated, more holistic and collaborative way.”

A recent external evaluation of the organisation states how The Children’s Trust ‘engages with all stakeholders to enable development of meaningful and progressive strategies’. This high level of participation and co-production are important qualities to Dalton.

Building a high performing senior leadership team

How do you build a strong, cohesive and ambitious senior leadership team? Dalton is passionate about people. It’s a clear strength, along with his ability to challenge himself through very considered self-awareness.

Recruiting an exceptional Director of Finance is a challenge that many charities face. The Children’s Trust is no exception. Five Directors in five years, including two interim roles, has been a hard-won and frustrating route to finally recruiting an excellent Director of Finance.

“I think part of it was acknowledgement that you need to be prepared to pay at the right remuneration level to get the best person; the lesson being that you can’t always cut corners. If you want to work in the land of giants, you have to hire a giant.”

The senior leadership team has played a key role in the cultural shift of the organisation. As part of this change, Dalton has tried to make sure he’s clear on expectations and managing those expectations.

This goes hand in hand with how he sees his leadership journey. Constructive and transparent 360 feedback from all areas of the business help him to reflect on what he needs to develop or do more of – as a leader and a manager.

“I love the little phrase, ‘inspect what you expect’. So if you have that high standard, then you are constantly managing to that level.”

All the team are continually striving to work better. The continued learning, development and innovation is easily described by Dalton, by questioning outcomes and outputs, with ‘So what? So what does that mean? How can we still continue to reach for those higher planes?’

Recruitment is vital in how he’s built the senior leadership team. Looking for people he knows have more expertise than him in very specialist areas. He’s rightly proud of his team.

“When you recruit people that are better than you as specialists in their role, means you have to step up also. Everyone has to raise their game.”

The Children's Trust high performing senior leadership team, including three appointments through Peridot.

Diversity and leadership

Dalton is a BAME chief executive – one of the very few in the not-for-profit sector. He sees diversity as a wide spectrum but also wants to ensure he’s fully representing the beneficiary base, many of whom are BAME.

“So diversity is key for me, and ethnicity is just one part. It’s equally important to talk about gender, disability (or ability), our service users, age, employment status and background.”

He talks about building a sector that encourages greater diversity around education, experience, skills, knowledge, values and behaviours.

The relationship between the Chief Executive and the Board of Trustees

Expert and supportive Trustees, who understand the balance of strategy and operational management, is the dream for every Chief Executive.

“The best phrase I can use is an adult-to-adult relationship, built on mutual trust and respect. I believe I have this now, with my relationship with our Chair of Trustees and the Board.”

There are clear practical steps that The Children’s Trust takes to ensure good governance and that the Board clearly represent the needs of the charity:

  • Do a skills gap analysis;
  • Make sure there is a Board appraisal;
  • Use a succession planning matrix (with good consultation between the senior leadership team and Chief Executive);
  • Work collaboratively with a trusted recruitment agency.

It’s helpful that Dalton is an experienced Trustee and Chair himself and is currently a school Governor. He’s able to see the relationship from both perspectives, understanding what good governance looks like and, the difference between strategic input and operational interference.

He highlights that there can be times of turbulence as you build trust, but a key factor in keeping consistency is understanding why you do what you do, and who you are doing it for. Ultimately it comes down to maintaining your passion for the cause and remaining both positive and resilient.

And The Children’s Trust has begun a unique way of ensuring that the children and their families are at the forefront of Board discussions.

“At the beginning of every Board meeting, we hold a 20-minute session where we observe a case study (children’s story) from a member of the clinical or educational team, or a child and their family join the board meeting. We also have an agenda item at the end of each board meeting that allows time to review how we have truly represented the child’s views, and asks what are the key decisions required that meet children and young peoples’ needs going forward.”

Balancing learning and leadership

Starting from a position of harmonious leadership, Dalton describes himself as composed, measured, firm, fair and collegiate. It describes a quieter leadership style which belies the steely visionary and strategic skills he also employs. He clearly demonstrates ability to be both decisive and resilient.

“I like to build teams and make them happy, and I like everyone to be happy. I don’t like people falling out with each other if I can avoid it. But I’m also not afraid of making an unpopular decision if it’s the right thing to do. I don’t suffer fools gladly.”

This supports his success in building a cohesive senior leadership team, who have different personalities and character traits but who work well together.

He has a different way of influencing, which comes back to transparent communication and taking decisive action – taking the organisation on this journey of change and delivery.

A contact of his, who previously supported Dalton and the team with leadership and strategic development, said ‘Dalton is one of the only CEOs that I have ever used the word ‘cool’ to describe’.

Dalton is clear and people-focused when asked what advice he’d give to someone stepping up to their first leadership role:

  • Be clear what you want to achieve in the infamous first 100 days;
  • Set realistic but ambitious and SMART objectives for yourself and the organisation;
  • Get to know the key stakeholders and people of influence quickly;
  • Create excellent relationships with everyone; the most senior staff, the most junior staff and volunteers;
  • Read articles written by people you admire to see how they work; network and form long-lasting, supportive relationships.

Peer support is something that is really important as part of his leadership development. Working with other CEOs who can, when needed, help mentor and give support – he’s Chair of The Connaught Group, a network of other charity chief executives.

Using Action Learning Sets to share common issues that require solutions and being part of generative thinking organisations. And as an Ambassador of Charityworks, the UK’s non-profit sector’s graduate programme, he mentors younger people looking to create a career in the charity sector.

As a Companion of The Chartered Management Institute he cites their resources as important and practical development tools. When we spoke, Dalton was working towards his Chartered Manager qualification which meant long hours of study after work and at weekends, balancing family time with his commitment to being a better leader.

After 32 years managing and leading people, he highlights that he still learns every single day and studying for this qualification is a mark of that belief.

The Children’s Trust launch their new five-year strategy (Hope and Ambition) this year and if it reflects the energy and passion of Dalton, his senior leadership team, colleagues and volunteers (including Trustees), they’ll continue to be an even bigger force for the children and young people they support. And that’s extremely exciting. Or, as Dalton says, “I’m ridiculously excited about our new Strategy”.

“It’s basically about working hard. Looking at ways to improve your personal and professional development continuously. Emulate the behaviours of leaders that you admire. Ignore the bad habits of leaders you disrespect.

Because that’s all I’ve done throughout my career.”